Singapore MRT: More passengers than expected from Day One

People have been complaining of overcrowding on trains and the influx of foreigners. But are the two problems inter-related?

Here is what the Straits Times reported on March 12, 1988, the day the MRT was officially launched by the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew:

“Four months after they first started running, the trains are carrying 145,000 passengers daily – about a fifth more than expected by the operator of the railway, Singapore MRT.”

Yes, the trains were running before the official inauguration. The first MRT stations on the North South Line opened between November and December 1987, but the network was officially launched only when stations opened on the East West Line and City Hall and Raffles Place became interchanges in March 1988.

This was before immigration became a burning issue. A look at old census records will show Singapore had a much smaller population – three million – in 1990.

Only since then has the population increased by a million every decade. Singapore is now home to more than 5.1 million people and, according to the Population White Paper, the figure could increase to six million by 2020 and 6.9 million by 2030. But the MRT was carrying more passengers than expected even before the population explosion.

Of course, passenger traffic has increased phenomenally as the network has grown. Now the MRT and the LRT serve more than two million passengers a day, according to the Land Transport Authority (LTA).

The trains are so overcrowded during the morning rush hour that the government is taking unprecedented measures.
On Monday, the MRT started offering free early-morning trips to ease the peak-hour rush. Commuters won’t be charged a cent if they get off the trains at certain stations before 7.45 am. Those who alight between 7.45 am and 8 am will get a 50 cent discount. The yearlong scheme, which is expected to cost the government $10 million, is to ease congestion on the MRT.

The scheme got off to an “encouraging” start, said the LTA, reporting higher early-morning passenger traffic on Monday. The number of commuters alighting at the designated stations by 7.45 am went up from a daily average of 23,000 to 29,000 while the number of passengers who arrived between 8 am and 9 am dropped from 94,000 to almost 86,000.

But not everyone is prepared to go to work earlier than usual just to get a free MRT ride. Some said they would go to work sooner only if they were let off earlier. That’s for their employers to decide. So the employers are being asked to cooperate with the new scheme. The LTA said: “Employers are encouraged to facilitate their employees to travel earlier to take advantage of the scheme.”

This is not the first time Singapore has tried to adjust working hours.

Singapore moved the clocks forward by half an hour on January 1, 1982, to match the time in peninsular Malaysia, which adjusted the clocks on December 31, 1981, to have one standard time throughout the land. With the adjustment, Singapore and Malaysia wound up in the same time zone as Hong Kong, Beijing and Taipei.

Will the employers heed the appeal to adjust working hours?

The morning peak-hour rush is a chronic problem for the MRT.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about it nearly three years ago. In August 2010, he said the government would spend $60 billion over the next 10 years on improvements to the rail network to ease congestion. The Straits Times reported: “Armed with a map of the MRT network, Mr Lee explained that the problem is mostly confined to the morning peak hour between 7.45 am and 8.45 am.”

Now, the government is prepared to fund free early-morning MRT trips to ease the peak-hour rush. But trains are crowded on weekends as well. People take the MRT not only to work or school but to go shopping and visiting friends and relatives as well. They may moan and groan about overcrowded trains, but clearly commuters have got used to the crush.